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German president: Flood victims' fates 'broke our hearts'

July 17, 2021

Deaths are mounting as Germany clears away the destruction wrought by floods. "When you've lost almost everything … where do you start?" asks one woman, as drained and devastated survivors begin the long cleanup process.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and the premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, Armin Laschet, in Erftstadt
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and the premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, Armin Laschet, speak to flood victims in Erftstadt townImage: Staatskanzlei NRW/dpa/picture alliance
  • More than 140 people have been reported dead across western Germany, with more fatalities across Europe
  • Some 670 people have been reported injured
  • 850 Bundeswehr soldiers have been deployed to assist with disaster relief
  • President Frank-Walter Steinmeier visited the flooded regions of North Rhine-Westphalia
  • The worst-hit regions are in western Germany around the borders to the Benelux countries
  • The flooding has also impacted eastern Germany and Austria

This article was last updated at 23:50 UTC

German ministers promise help for flood victims, affected businesses

German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, along with Economy Minister Peter Altmaier, have promised help to victims of the flooding, according to the Bild am Sonntag newspaper.

Scholz told the newspaper he will propose several assistance measures to other cabinet members next week.

He said an amount "significantly higher" than €300 million ($354 million) in emergency aid would be needed for the victims of the flooding. He also said billions of euros should be spent on repairing infrastructure that was damaged by the flood, such as destroyed houses, roads and bridges.

"We have to stand together as a country and help the flood victims quickly, generously and in an unbureaucratic fashion," he said.

In addition, Altmaier proposed assistance of up to €10,000 for individual businesses severely impacted by the flooding and the coronavirus pandemic. At the same time, he expects that some of the damages to these businesses will be paid by insurance companies.

Floods also hit eastern Germany, Austria

The floods are hitting not only western Germany, but also other parts of the country. 

Hard rainfall in the eastern German state of Saxony has caused flooding in a region called Saxon Switzerland, which is located southeast of the major city of Dresden. The hilly area around the Elbe valley is a popular tourist destination.

Flooding in Saxony
Heavy rains have caused flooding on several streets in the Saxon town of OberlungwitzImage: André März/dpa/picture alliance

The Saxon towns of Neustadt, Sebnitz, Bad Schandau, Reinhardtsdorf-Schöna and Gohrisch have been hit particularly hard.

The heavy rainfall has forced the closure of a railway line between Bad Schandau and the Czech town of Decin.

The region of Upper Bavaria, which is located in the southern German state of Bavaria, is also witnessing emergency conditions. Firefighters have been deployed amid reports of flooded streets and landslides in the region.

Flooding in Berchtesgadner Land
The flooding has caused devastation in Berchtesgadener Land and overwhelmed rescue personnelImage: Kilian Pfeiffer/dpa/picture alliance

The Upper Bavarian district of Berchtesgadener Land has declared the flooding a disaster situation. Officials in Berchtesgadener Land have reported two dead in the flooding area.

Austria is also being impacted by the flooding, according to Austrian public broadcaster ORF. 

Residents of the city of Hallein, which lies in the Austrian state of Salzburg near the German border, have been asked to stay in their homes. The flooding has devastated parts of Hallein's historic old city.

 Cracked dam worries officials

Even though much flooding has subsided, danger remains for many residents near Euskirchen, where the Steinbachtal dam is still at risk of bursting. The dam is "extremely unstable" after large parts broke away amid the high waters, Cologne authorities said on Saturday. They said there was an acute danger of flooding for areas situated below the dam, with more evacuations planned.

Laschet apologizes after social media anger

North Rhine-Westphalian State Premier Armin Laschet, who hopes to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor of Germany this fall, apologized after a video of him prompted outrage on social media. 

In the video, Laschet is seen laughing in the background as Germany's President Frank-Walter Steinmeier talks to reporters about helping victims of the flood. The clip prompted a hashtag #Laschetlacht (Laschet laughs), with many calling his behavior "disrespectful" and "undignified."

Laschet reiterated that he was concerned about the fate of victims, and said he regretted "the impression that was created by a conversation."

"This [impression] was inappropriate and I am sorry."

Death toll keeps climbing

Late on Saturday, German officials raised the death toll to 141 and the number of injured to 670. Many people remain missing, fanning fears that more lives will have been lost. Police in the town of Koblenz said a helicopter mission was planned to look for survivors.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is set to visit the area in the country's northwest on Sunday.

German floods leave behind trail of devastation

Netherlands PM Rutte: 'no doubt' climate change worsened floods

"Without a doubt," said caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands when asked whether climate change had caused the storms behind the flooding. "I don't want to make hasty declarations but let's be clear, something is really happening," said Rutte during a visit to the southern province of Limburg.

Firefighters killed during rescue operations

At least four firefighters in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia lost their lives during rescue operations since flooding began Wednesday, according to Bernd Schneider, chairman of the NRW Firefighters Association. Speaking on Saturday, he said, "The anguish in fire departments in North Rhine-Westphalia and beyond, is enormous. We will all have a lot to process when our mission is over." 

More than 23,000 emergency forces are currently working in rescue operations in the state according to regional government sources.

Firefighters standing on the roof of their truck to enter a flooded home in Trier, Germany, as floodwaters rush past
Thousands of emergency forces have been risking their lives to save others, four firefighters have been killedImage: Ernst Mettlach/AFP

DW field correspondents: Major clean-up, massive outreach and tragic loss

Local citizens in Ahrweiler were using their own machines and vehicles to clear up debris on Saturday, DW's Giulia Saudelli noted in a tweet. They say government assistance has yet to arrive.

DW's Kate Brady reported that outreach organizers near Erftstadt had to close down a donations center because they could no longer manage the amount of goods they were receiving. A woman sheltering at the site since Thursday told our correspondent she doesn't know what she needs, "When you've lost almost everything … where do you start?"   

DW's Kate Martyr reported Saturday on the tragic deaths of 12 individuals trapped in a home for disabled people as the floodwaters rose in Sinzig.

President Steinmeier mourns flood victims, lauds rescue crews

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, visiting the Rhine-Erft district in North Rhine-Westphalia, paid tribute to the people who died in the flooding.

"We are mourning with those who have lost their friends, acquaintances, their family members — your fate has broken our hearts," he said on Saturday, appearing visibly shaken.

Giving thanks to the emergency crews, the German head of state said they had "worked to the point of exhaustion and beyond."

Speaking alongside President Steinmeier, NRW State Premier Armin Laschet promised that aid to victims of what he called the "disaster of the century," would be rapidly disbursed, calling it a "national task." 

"If your home has been destroyed, if there is nothing left, not even money," Laschet said, "helping with that, immediately, is the most important thing." 

Earlier in the day, Norway's King Harald expressed his sympathies over the flooding in a message addressed to Steinmeier, saying, "On behalf of myself and of the people of Norway, I am sending you my sincere condolences, and ask you to convey my condolences to those bereaved or otherwise affected by this terrible natural disaster."

Ahrweiler residents tell DW of floods heartbreak

DW's Giulia Saudelli has been on the ground in the flood-affected area of Ahrweiler.

Our correspondent met several residents who spoke of the horror of seeing their homes and businesses destroyed.

Alexander Petkovski owns the Brettspielheld toy and game store in the town.

He describes how his shop was covered in nearly "one meter of water."

"I think it will take months or years to put it [back together]," he told DW.

Germany: Flooding

Belgian death toll on the rise

The death toll in Belgium reached 24, as search and rescue efforts continue in the eastern part of the country.  Many people are still missing. Police in Angleur, in the city of Liege, said they had found at least one more body overnight.

Cleaning up after the trauma

DW's Kate Brady reports that the clean-up has also started across Ahrweiler as residents return to their homes to try and salvage what is left of them.

"Friends, family and volunteers have traveled miles to help. The extent of destruction is devastating," our correspondent writes.

Merkel to visit hard-hit town

German Chancellor Angela Merkel will travel to the heavily-hit Schuld municipality in the district of Ahrweiler on Sunday, according to the Bild newspaper.

She will be accompanied by Malu Dreyer, the state premier of Rhineland-Palatinate.

"I would like to thank the helpers from the bottom of my heart for their commitment, which we know is sometimes really very, very dangerous," Merkel said earlier from Washington. "On behalf of the federal government, I can say: where we can help, we will do it. These are horrific days for the people in the floodplains."

Rescuers complete airlift

The rescue operation in Erftstadt has been completed, according to authorities there. As many as 170 people were saved by emergency workers.

Some of them were airlifted by helicopter.

The focus has now shifted to finding the bodies of those who lost their lives. 

Belgian PM visits site of the floods

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo has been to the scene of what he called "unprecedented" flood damage in the country. He was joined at the site by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen as the two viewed a river valley in eastern Belgium near the German border.

The last official death toll in Belgium was 20, with up to 20 people still missing. Authorities say that figure is expected to rise as emergency workers continue search and rescue efforts.

Town's main square devastated

DW's Giulia Saudelli has been reporting from the town of Walporzheim in the flood-ravaged Ahrweiler region.

Our correspondent reports that town's main square has been completely destroyed and that clean-up operations have now begun in earnest.

"There's a lot of movement going on, a lot of volunteers here trying to help clean up the town from all the debris, trees, cars, furniture, all sorts of things," she reports.

Germany: Flooding

Several train lines out of service

Several train lines have been damaged following the deadly floods. The route along the western banks of the Rhine River between Cologne and Koblenz, for instance, has been out of service since a signal box in Bonn was flooded. Rail carrier Deutsche Bahn will switch to the eastern banks of the Rhine and two auxiliary tracks will be set up over the next few days, said a spokesperson.

Meanwhile, several rail bridges along lines through the Ahr Valley have collapsed — damage that could take years to fully repair. The regional Eifel line from Bonn to Euskirchen is also out of service.

Dutch province of Limburg remains on high alert

Emergency services in the Netherlands are on high alert as overflowing rivers continue to threaten towns and villages in the country's southern province of Limburg.

Authorities have evacuated thousands of residents in the area over the past two days as volunteers and fire brigades move to prevent further flooding.
The Dutch have so far escaped the same high human cost seen in western Germany.
As of Saturday morning, no casualties had been reported.

Hundreds evacuated after dam breaks

The situation remained tense in a German district close to the Dutch border after residents were evacuated last night after a nearby dam broke, according to a statement the town issued.

Residents of Ophoven, in the city of Wassenberg, were evacuated from their homes after a dam broke in the Heinsberg district in western Germany. It was unclear how much damage had been caused by the dam breaking on the Ruhr River, which flows from Germany through the Netherlands and Belgium.

Around 700 people were affected by the measures, which began on Friday night. Wassenberg officials said no further problems had occurred during the night and that water levels remained stable. However, they warned people living in two other nearby districts of the possible need to evacuate.

Mainz police warn 'disaster tourists'

Police in Mainz, a city on the Rhine, have taken to Twitter to tell  motorcyclists to stay away from the worst-hit areas of Rhineland-Palatinate.

"We ask all motorcyclists to avoid area affected by the storm this weekend," they wrote.

"It is not time to go riding in a disaster area where many people have experienced great suffering and loss."

Minister urges rebuilding effort

German Environment Minister Svenja Schulze has told the broadcaster WDR that the flooding shows that extra cash is needed for the affected regions to deal with extreme weather.

"There must be permanent funding for local authorities so that they can make this transition," she said. Schulze said the money should be used for improving water management schemes and that progress needed to be made "faster than currently is the case."  

Rescuers continue search in village with sinkhole

Rescue crews are continuing the search for people missing in the western German village of Erfstadt-Blessem, the site of a massive sinkhole caused by the floods. No bodies have been found yet, and there are no reliable figures on how many people are still missing.

"We assume several deaths, but do not know," said the North Rhine-Westphalian Interior Minister Herbert Reul on Friday in Düsseldorf.

At least three residential buildings and part of a historic castle collapsed in the area. Water levels have dropped in other parts of the area, a district spokesperson said on Saturday.

Death toll above 130

The official death toll has risen to 133, with 43 confirmed in North Rhine-Westphalia and 150 confirmed in total across Belgium, France, Switzerland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

At least 90 of the deaths in Germany were in the Ahrweiler district south of Cologne, and officials say that figure is likely to rise as rescue efforts continue. Police said they had received reports of over 618 injuries.

Steinmeier to visit affected district

President Frank-Walter Steinmeier will visit an affected district in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia. He will visit along with State Premier Armin Laschet, who is in the running to replace Angela Merkel as chancellor in the fall. He is expected in the Rhein-Erft district and is then due to join Laschet in a visit to Erftstadt, where numerous houses and cars were washed away in recent days.

In Erftstadt-Blessem, several buildings and parts of a historic castle were destroyed due to a sink hole and major landslides. State Interior Minister Herbert Reul said on Friday evening it was assumed several people in Erftstadt had died but the situation was not yet clear.

Thousands of workers in the Eifel region

Thousands of emergency workers are still in the Eifel region, where the flood devastated entire towns and flattened homes on Thursday night. Damaged power and telephone lines as well as interruptions to mobile phone services have made it harder to locate people and carry out rescue services.

Initial forecasts for Rhineland-Palatinate showed the danger of flooding had fallen, although warnings remained in place around the Ahr river and the tributaries of the lower Sauer.